The History And Science Of America’s Favorite Backyard Bird
Author Tove Danovich explains the wild history of chicken domestication and the surprising science of chicken intelligence.
The following is an excerpt from Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, by Tove Danovich.
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Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them
When I told my grandma I was getting chickens, the first thing she did was ask me how many.
“Three,” I said proudly.
“Three?!” she repeated.
“Three!” I was sure that she was shocked by how amazing it was that I was adding so many chickens to my family.
Grandma laughed. “You can’t just get three chickens,” she finally said. “You have to get twenty-five—at least.”
I tried to explain that things had changed since she last had chickens, that most people in cities often only had three to six because of local laws.
She scoffed, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“They’re coming next week! I’ll show you. Three is plenty.”
Before my grandma was born, my great-grandma Gyda got a wedding present from her new husband. They lived on a farm in North Dakota where farm wives worked just as hard as the men, though they usually had no control of the household income besides what the “man of the house” deigned to give them. Instead of an allowance, my great-grandfather and his brother, another newlywed with a farm nearby, cooked up the idea of building henhouses for their wives. The husbands would provide money for feed and chicks so the women could “raise as many chickens as they wanted,” as my grandma recalls, and avoid one wife getting jealous of the other for having a bigger income. (It’s unclear whether the women would have wanted to raise any chickens at all if given the option. But I digress.) My great-grandma kept white ducks and White Leghorn chickens that she sold to people in town. “She’d get orders and butcher them, and I would have to stand there holding them while they were bleeding to death,” Grandma remembered almost fondly, a childhood memory that’s slightly less common today.
This chicken money paid for my grandma’s and great-uncle’s piano and music lessons. Gyda, like other farm women in the early 1900s, sold chickens and eggs to city folk for cash or in exchange for credit at the local grocery store. In farm households, women’s income was often called “egg money” because it so commonly came from raising chickens. It was treated as separate from real farm income even though it kept the family fed, clothed, and educated and paid for memorable items like musical instruments or class rings.
That all started to change after World War II. Extension programs began to suggest men get involved in the chicken industry and modernize it. Chicken farming had been looked down on as women’s work but now was advertised to men as a good way to make a living. New production breeds were developed that gained weight faster or laid more eggs. Extension programs recommended chickens be raised in modern warehouses, where they were confined 24/7, rather than backyard coops like the one my great-grandmother used. Outside truly rural areas, a flock of chickens in the backyard became an oddity.
My family was proud enough of their farming roots and the old dairy they used to own that I always felt comfortable around farm animals and the realities of farming—at least the realities of how farming used to be. My grandma remembered her role in her mother’s chicken business. A generation later, my mom and her sisters all told the same story about visiting the family dairy and having to hold the cows’ tails during milking (“or else,” their uncle warned them, miming a chopping motion to make the girls scream). I knew from a young age that everything on a farm had to have a purpose, whether it was the draft horses pulling heavy wagons or the chickens laying eggs. But we’ve lost touch with the bargain early farmers made with their animals—that these creatures would have easy, safe lives free from predators except for us humans.
Today, there’s never been a worse time to be a chicken. Since 1992, Americans have eaten more chicken than any other meat (chicken became more popular than pork in 1985 and went on to wrest beef out of the number one spot a few years later). In 2020, over nine billion of these birds were raised for eggs or meat on industrial farms in America alone. (Globally the number is sixty-five billion.) More chickens are killed for food every year than there are people on the planet. By weight, 70 percent of all birds on the planet are the poultry that humans raise for food. We’ve bred chickens to produce more eggs and grow faster. Some scientists have even dabbled with the idea of creating a meat chicken that never develops feathers just so we can save a step between slaughter and the grocery store. Broiler chickens, raised to gain weight quickly, are slaughtered before they’re even two months old. If allowed to live a “natural” life, these birds’ genetics are so unnatural that they often die from heart failure or become lame because their skeleton can’t support their weight.
Chickens on industrial farms live their lives in cramped cages or perhaps in cage-free facilities, stuffed together on a dusty floor where at least they can spread their wings. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958, requires all animals be “rendered insensible to pain” before being shackled or killed—all animals except for poultry.
I was in middle school when I read about the realities of the meat industry for the first time. It was so different from Old MacDonald and the family farms that I’d heard stories of growing up. There were no childhood hijinks with the animals. No roosters chasing kids across the yard. In industrial farms, the only people who interact with these animals tend to them like machines—giving food and water or shoveling waste.
I was horrified by the information. I stayed up all night on the internet, watching undercover videos and reading every article I could find. I made a plan with a few of my other animal-loving friends to sneak into school an hour before classes started. We taped fliers about meat and farming to everyone’s blue lockers. I wanted them to know what I knew. Why wasn’t everyone outraged? I was only thirteen and I knew, immediately and without question, that what was happening to animals on these farms was wrong. As I got older, it shocked me how little people knew about farm animals.
People knew that cats liked to rub themselves on human legs and that dogs’ paws twitched when they ran in their dreams. Kids learned that snakes shed their skin and that iguanas used camouflage to hide. Yet most of us would be hard-pressed to come up with facts about pigs, cows, chickens, or turkeys outside of what to do with their meat in the kitchen.
A few years ago, I was at a wedding, discussing with the table what animals we’d like to have as a pet when my own husband said he’d always wanted a pet cow. “Because then you could have milk whenever you wanted!”
Everyone agreed this was a great idea. “Milk from your own backyard. Delicious.”
“You can’t just have milk from a cow,” I interrupted. “They need to have a calf to produce milk.”
The table was quiet for a moment before bursting out in a flurry of disagreement. They were positive that this wasn’t the case, that cows were—due to a quirk of nature—endless milk-producing machines.
“Think about the biology of it,” I protested. “Human women have to have a baby to produce milk. So do cows. The cows are kept pregnant, and the male calves often become veal.”
Finally, someone got out their phone and searched, “Do cows have to be pregnant to produce milk?” After Google also agreed with me, they were forced to acquiesce. A pet cow, it turned out, was not such a great thing after all.
There are countless books about the behavior of cats and dogs. Parrots and other birds got a boost after a gray parrot named Alex proved that certain avian species were capable of using language. There are even a few books about living with pet pigs or cows.
The chicken has not been so lucky. Most people don’t even know basic facts about chicken biology. I regularly get questions like:
Don’t you need a rooster if you want eggs? While a rooster is required to make a chick, the eggs we eat are just a product of ovulation, which hens do naturally.
How many eggs do you get a week? We get more in the spring and summer, slowing as the days get shorter until the chickens go on winter break.
How long can chickens live? Some exceptionally healthy chickens have lived to be twenty, though most have a lifespan of five to ten years.
People are usually surprised to find out that chickens can fly—though often poorly and for short distances since most breeds are bred to be too fat to get much lift. But people are starting to pay more attention to chickens for one simple reason: they’re back in backyards! As the new millennium started, people decided to raise small flocks of happy hens. Homesteaders and people in rural areas never stopped keeping chickens, even as prices of eggs and meat started falling in the 1950s. But it had been decades since chickens were a regular fixture of cities and suburbs. Some people trace the rise of the backyard chicken to Martha Stewart, whose first book, Entertaining, published in 1982, contained numerous pictures of her decidedly glamorous chickens and their colorful eggs. They’ve been popping up in her magazines, TV shows, and social media ever since.
Stewart undoubtedly introduced people who were already keeping chickens to breeds they may not have considered—the Polish breed, with their floppy feather hat, or the Americana hen, who lays teal blue eggs. But two books about food helped drive people straight into the fluffy embrace of backyard chickens: Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book, Fast Food Nation, with its descriptions of the industrial meat industry and the way the chicken nugget changed poultry farming, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, released in 2006, which showed a vision of what the meat industry could be if we did things on a smaller, more humane scale. “Know your farmer, know your food” became a popular bumper sticker. What better way to know where your food came from than to grow it yourself?
But because many of these new urban homesteaders had small backyards, zoning regulations limited the size of their flocks to just a few birds (if chickens were allowed at all). This made people get closer to their birds than even my grandma and other farm wives with their flocks of a few hundred. Now the first thing people do after picking up their chicks is name them. This would have been unthinkable when my grandma was a little girl. Today people pamper their pets—still most often dogs and cats—like never before. Pets sleep on the bed with their owners and snuggle on the sofa during a television binge. People might drop off a dog at daycare on the way to work like they’re any parent in the carpool lane. Luxury products, like treat dispensers equipped with a nanny cam so anxious owners can keep an eye on their pets have become normal. In this context, it’s no surprise that chickens today don’t get just names but also lavish backyard coops, landscaped gardens with safe-to-peck plants, and special-ordered mealworms to snack on.
When lockdowns for COVID-19 closed schools and businesses, forcing families to stay home for months on end in 2020, many people’s first impulse was to order baby chicks. When times get tough, as one hatchery employee told me, people turn to chickens. Hatcheries were overwhelmed by the demand and many breeds sold out for the remainder of the year. Chicken coops became all but impossible to come by, and even feed was in low supply. Desperately seeking chickens, families turned to local farmers as a source of hatching eggs or chicks.
These new flocks were an eventual source of eggs and entertainment for people stuck at home. In many families, these Corona-chickens (as some people referred to them on social media) were a teaching tool for kids. Home- school lessons might involve using math to figure out how much feed the birds needed or to measure the diameter of the coop, reading and writing about their new flocks, and even creating art inspired by the growing hens.
Reprinted with permission from Under the Henfluence by Tove Danovich, Agate, March 2023.